Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Lights of Hanukkah - Shabbat 21

In their discussion of what may and may not be used to light Shabbat candles, the rabbis practically stumble onto what today in the North American context is treated as a very important Jewish holiday – Hanukkah. They say that the materials forbidden for Shabbat candles are also disqualified for Hanukkah candles for the same reason – they don’t burn evenly and might need to be relit. More interesting for us is what Shabbat 21b has to say about Talmudic Hanukkah observance and beliefs.

The general guideline, we read, is one set of lights for a man and his house, though the zealous (and the zealous of the zealous) have each member of the household light their own. It turns out that Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai] and Beit Hillel disagreed how to light the lights. Beit Shammai would light 8 the first night, 7 the second, and so on, to represent the number of days left, or to parallel the decreasing number of bulls sacrificed at the Temple on subsequent days of Sukkot. Beit Hillel lit 1 the first night, 2 the second (as we do today) either to agree with the number of days completed or because of the general principle: “One increases in holiness and does not decrease – d’ma’alin b’kodesh v’ayn moridin.” This religious principle is behind many movements of religious fervor, each more “holier than thou” than the last. However, immediately after this saying we read of two respected men in Sidon who, side by side, lit their menorahs differently, each following the reason and the school they found more persuasive – a very inspiring model for today’s Jewish pluralism.

One is supposed to put the lit hanukkia [Hanukah candelabra] outside the house, or in the public-facing window unless it is a time of danger (i.e. religious persecution) when one may place it on a table. However, one is not supposed to use its light for any purpose like reading, since the candles are understood to commemorate a miracle, a miracle whose story is created by the Talmud itself! Today the Talmud’s story is more well-known than what really happened, but that doesn’t change the truth of history.

If one reads the Books of Maccabees or Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, histories of the period written much closer to the events of 165 BCE, there is absolutely no mention of any miracle of the light that had enough pure oil for one day but lasted for eight – it first appears in this Talmud page. 1 Maccabees describes a desecrated altar being rededicated in an 8 day festival on the 25th of Kislev and an annual celebration declared by Judah Maccabee. Why 8 days? When Solomon dedicated his Temple, it was an 8 day celebration. Why the 25th of Kislev? That was the date the Greeks had defiled the Temple for one of their celebrations, so a good date to mark its re-purification. In the Talmud, the date for Hanukkah (which means “dedication”) is the same, but the reasoning is very different – a divine miracle instead of a human achievement. Celebrating Hanukkah today should be a memory of the story, but also of the real history behind it.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For further reading:

The First Book of Maccabees – – go to Apocrypha, then 1st Macacbees chapter 4, verses 36-59.